What is a cheat sheet?: why making your own is a good idea

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, let’s get to it. We’ve mentioned the term “cheat sheet” before in previous episodes. We have another listener question from someone who heard that and just couldn’t resist asking about it. She has also posed a previous question to us. So, thank you again, Sara, for your communication and collaboration with us on these episodes. The question is simply: what in the world is the cheat sheet? Well, Orion, I’ll pass it over to you.

Orion: Yes, the cheat sheet is crucial. Essentially, everything you need to get a perfect score on the quantitative section of the GRE can be written on the front and back of a standard-sized sheet of paper. You might need to write small, but not excessively so. This is a stark contrast to some of my competitors who offer encyclopedic books spanning thousands of pages, covering all the essential material and information that students must know for the quantitative section. Everything you need can fit on one sheet of paper, and I call that the student’s cheat sheet.

Davis: So, when you say everything you need can be written, are you referring to formulas? Or just mathematical concepts represented mathematically? Or does that include actual words?

Orion: No, it’s mostly the mathematical representation. This is a quantitative exam; you need to know some things about math. However, knowing math is necessary but insufficient to answer the questions correctly. If you don’t know, for instance, the area of a trapezoid, it will be challenging to answer a question about the theory of a trapezoid. But that’s probably not enough for a GRE problem, right? You have to understand that the GRE may appear like a math test, but it’s not. It uses quantitative concepts to test something far more abstract, such as potential. The GRE is an aptitude test; it doesn’t evaluate your knowledge of math, which is understandable because the math involved is, at most, basic algebra and geometry from middle school. It’s not about measuring your achievements in the quantitative domain. It’s about gauging, as accurately as possible, your potential to succeed in a future context that might require quantitative ability, among other skills. To test potential, one section uses quantitative concepts, and another uses semantic concepts. However, neither section is truly about words or numbers. Both aim to evaluate potential in future achievement contexts.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. As a student and a teacher, there’s sometimes that feeling of encountering a problem and thinking, ‘Oh, I can figure this out.’ Ideally, the cheat sheet is prepared and studied well in advance, so there’s never a moment when facing a GRE question using our system where someone says, ‘I think I can figure this out.’ Instead, it’s immediately, ‘I know the exact formula, I know precisely how to apply it.’ This confidence is developed through the program and then reinforced by the cheat sheet. So, how is the cheat sheet formed in your program, and how should someone use it when preparing for the GRE test date?

Orion: Yeah, great question. You used the magic word, ‘consolidation’, which is really what this is about. Consolidation is kind of a fancy word for memorization. There’s more to it, but that’s the core concept here. Because of that, I believe it’s really important for each student to make his or her own cheat sheet. This is something I could easily provide, but I don’t, because the act of creating it will do the lion’s share of consolidation for you. It doesn’t take all that long if it’s only a one-page document. A lot of consolidation also has visual analogues. So, if you, as a specific individual, are creating that cheat sheet, you’ll remember that you put the probability rules in the upper right-hand corner. Not only do you have the semantic information consolidated, but you also have a visual analogue that you can use to recall that information as necessary. The act of you organizing and creating the sheet will help you to memorize it, which is why I don’t do it for you.

Davis: Is it beneficial, then, to use that strategy? I mean, it’s a great strategy, and I definitely appreciate the act of creating it being the lion’s share of the consolidation and memorization. Should students use that while doing practice tests?

Orion: That’s a good question. I don’t have a problem with doing the practice problems with the cheat sheet directly in front of you. On some level, you can “cheat” off of yourself on the actual exam as well. This is a bit of a gray zone. So, take this with a grain of salt, but you can use your scratch paper on test day as a kind of cheat sheet. Anything that you’re having trouble remembering, you can jot down on your scratch paper when you sit down at your computer terminal and then refer to it during the exam. I believe that’s entirely fair game. I don’t see an issue with it because, although knowing those formulas is necessary, it’s not sufficient. If you could ace the quantitative section of the GRE just by memorizing that page of formulas, you could prepare for this test in a weekend. However, that’s generally not the case.

Success on the GRE isn’t about what you know; it’s about how you apply it. It’s procedural knowledge, as opposed to, let’s say, crystallized or factual knowledge. You need some of the latter to succeed, but the vast majority of success is procedural – it’s a method of approach. And to answer your question, which was insightful: you know you’ve consolidated the information when you can instantly recall the relevant material. That’s the benchmark.

For instance, I should be able to wake you from a deep sleep and ask, “What are the three sides of a 30-60-90 right triangle?” and you should instantly respond with “x, 2x, x√3.” It should be second nature to you, even in a state of semi-consciousness. That’s how deeply ingrained that factual knowledge should be. The test is challenging enough; if you’re spending time and mental resources struggling to remember crystallized knowledge, you’re creating unnecessary hurdles for yourself.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. It emphasizes the importance of gradual preparation rather than cramming over a weekend. Trying to develop that level of recall in a short period is improbable. It’s better to invest time over several weeks, be it eight weeks or six weeks, or whatever duration one needs, to build that recall knowledge base, especially since it’s procedural and requires consistent rehearsal over time.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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